A Junkie Cleans Up

March 27, 1995|By MARK MILLER

What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this? I asked myself. The place was my cramped field office and the girl -- I'll call her Denise -- was a 19-year-old high school dropout from an upper-middle-class socio-economic background with a genius-level IQ and a heroin habit.

Denise was the kind of probationer city agents might never see in their entire careers. She was a recent absconder from an out-of-state, in-patient recovery program, sporting a ring through her nose and orange hair, accompanied by her physician-father, a soft-spoken, frustrated man who knew that any parental control he once had over his daughter's life was now gone. ''I think she should go back to the program,'' he said to me. ''She was close to completing it.''

Not close enough as far as Denise was concerned, who clearly did not think father knew best. After toughing it out for over 6 months at this live-in facility, Denise split, returned to Baltimore and moved in with a girlfriend and her mother, both recovering substance abusers. ''I really don't think moving in with another drug addict is what she needs,'' her father said. He invited Denise to live with him if she refused to return to the program. Denise's defiant look said it all: Nothing doing.

I wasn't sure what was in Denise's best interests, but her father had my empathy. I had chatted by phone with him periodically while Denise was away, listening to his concerns, asking questions, offering suggestions. I too was a father and mindful that my 11-year-old, for whatever reason or reasons, might in late adolescence take the wrong path and end up in similar circumstances.

Most intellectually gifted 19-year-olds from Denise's milieu are attending college -- not absconding from drug-rehab houses. So why or how did Denise take her rocky road less traveled? ''She was always rebellious,'' her mother had told me. Her father blamed part of it on the parents' nasty divorce and subsequent custody battle.

Whatever the reason, Denise romped through a kamikaze adolescence of drug abuse and destructive sexual relationships, dropping out of high school at 16 (she later scored very high on the General Equivalency Diploma), bouncing between her parents' households and making unauthorized transactions to support her drug habit.

It was the latter, a conviction for theft and credit-card fraud, that had landed her on my caseload. She had been a week away from completing the first phase of the drug program when staff reprimanded her for a serious infraction and ordered her to spend a few days sitting by herself. Denise refused and returned to Baltimore, ''clean,'' so she said, and feeling both relieved and anxious about facing the world outside the confining but protective womb of the facility.

''Denise lives for the moment,'' her father later told me. ''She wants to return to the street and to the drugs, to the life she lived before entering the program.''

He thought she should be remanded back to court. I wasn't so sure. After all, shortly after her return, she completed court-ordered community service and got herself into out-patient substance-abuse counseling. But her dad pressed on, calling my superiors and sending an eloquent, 8-page letter to the court that prompted the judge to hold what he called in chambers a ''status conference.'' Denise was in compliance, His Honor decided. Case dismissed.

Return to her former life? Thus far she's proved her well-intentioned dad wrong: She's now working, talking about college and, according to her therapist, she's remained drug-free. A young, undisciplined life once out of control now seems in control. Talent and potential once squandered might yet be realized. Instant, destructive gratification might be giving way to long-term, constructive gratification. Professionalism might one day supplant unrestrained hedonism.

At the threshold of adulthood, Denise is either pulling a junkie's con or making a sincere effort to grow up. With close to a year's probation left, the truth will come out -- wrapped in a Closing Summary yet unwritten.

Mark Miller is employed with the Division of Parole and Probation.

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